It’s Mine and You Can’t Have It!

The music business is a most certainly complex and dirty business, to say the least and as time has gone on, it has gotten far worse and harder to navigate through. With illegal downloading being estimated by industry experts to be four times the amount of legal downloading, most artists (especially newer ones) can’t make any money from their art. Since even artists have to pay rent (debunking that romantic myth that artists don’t need money to live on), let’s face it, if you can’t make a living from your art, you’ll have to do something else to put food on the table.

With major record labels bleeding like being hit by multiple gunshot rounds, record companies have found new ways to exploit artists even more than before (if you can even imagine that!). This new trend is what are called 365 degree deals – where the label not only owns the recordings, they get their hands on your publishing, a piece of your touring income and merchandising, etc. Every penny the artist makes will have the paws of the record label taking a piece of it. With CD sales collapsing, the music industry is in a downward spiral free for all.

Since there is no formal education or legal requirements to be in the music business, it can be like flying a high-speed airplane in pitch darkness with blinders on, especially in this time period. With most professions, there is a pathway that needs to be followed and adhered to. When becoming a doctor, the studies and requirements are quite clear and literal as to what it takes to be a practicing physician. Since no such parameters exist within the music business, it becomes about power – often a vulgar display of it. Whether in the music business or society in general, the biggest always wins. Just like the most dominant guys intimidate the smaller guys in high school, the entity with the biggest bucks gobbles up the smaller people and independent enterprises.

Through their seemingly unlimited deep pockets, corporations can push their products, artists or ventures in ways the smaller companies and independent people just don’t have the power and money to do. Predictably, with large companies such as the major record labels, the terms they subject their artists to in most instances are comparable to sweat shop labor. Unless you’re a huge artist with a battery of top gun lawyers, the terms of your record deal will probably suck and smell like doggie doo-doo.

Consider this: Lisa Lopez of the group TLC had openly stated on VH1 that her group’s blockbuster album Crazy Sexy Cool had sold 10 million copies. I thought to myself, good for her! I started mentally drifting and hoping that she invests her money well and makes good choices for her future so she doesn’t ever have to play a Holiday Inn if her career declined…WAIT! STOP!

As I was thinking these warm and fuzzy thoughts, I almost fell out of my chair when she then stated that she made a total—a grand total mind you— of 50 thousand dollars from those 10 million copies sold. Most people barely live on 50 thousand dollars a year, yet alone 50 thousand dollars divided over the several years it took to sell this album. What she made from an enormously successful album seemed to be less than minimum wage! Plus, this was the time when CDs were selling for about $15.00 to $20.00 a pop. It’s staggering to think that this record probably grossed somewhere upwards of 150 million dollars and she got her piddly little dinky 50 grand.

So who pigged out on the pie? Of course, the record company did. I remember Lisa doing her little math lesson on VHI: After several millions of dollars spent to pay for the videos, recouping recording costs, marketing and packaging expenses, and all other costs, (maybe Kleenex tissues for the assistant to the record company president), that leaves their artist royalty which was somewhere between 6% to 9%, split three ways between the three group members.  Out of that artist’s share, don’t forget that management takes their commission too.  So viola! What’s left is that chump change amount of 50 grand. Just as in most instances, the record label owns the actual record, therefore, makes the most money from it while also having the control over what is done with it! It’s pretty easy to understand if you think of it this way: Look at a house. If you want to know who profits from the sale of the house and who controls what is done with it, just ask yourself, “Who owns it?”

How kind of them though, to never forget those ever so amusing little acrobatic performing monkeys known as the artists. After all, they contributed just a smidgen to this success so there will be a tiny little flake of crust after the pie has been wolfed down just for them! Forget all of the BS you see in videos: Luxury cars, yachts, mansions, jewelry…For most artists, it’s an illusion. Whoever owns the record profits the most. In this instance: It’s mine (the record company’s) and you (the artist) can’t have it!

You might ask, “Why don’t artists know better or set up more positive deals for themselves?” First, most artists enter into these deals when they are very young and truly don’t know any better. With the obsessive hunger and thirst to “make it,” artists lose sight of the reality of what they’re getting themselves into: Signing your rights away in perpetuity and entering into rotten deals where one gets totally ripped off forever, all for the illusive and poisonous carrot of fame.

With all of the famous artists I have worked with and / or have known, my strong sense is that artists as a whole who work in the music business full time (meaning their livelihood is completely generated by their art), hardly have a clue as to what this business is really all about. Let’s face it – most artists, especially young ones don’t want to talk about quarterly, semi annual and annual accounting, international intellectual property rights, the various income streams collected through publishing money and the complexities of a record contract…(Doesn’t it even sound laborsome just reading it?) There is a sense that being an artist is cool while dealing with the business is un-cool. After all, how many really edgy and unusual looking accountants have you ever met? (LOL)

Think of it this way, though. Could you imagine working for a company and not knowing the amount of your salary, how, when or why you might get paid, if you had health insurance benefits and a pension for retirement, etc? In this context, it sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? But do artists really seriously ask these questions of their management, accountants and record companies and follow through to learn the ropes of their industry? Quite doubtful…Yet, every artist needs to seriously inquire about everything and diligently study their business. As Mick Jagger, one of the most famous living rock artists, stated; “If you don’t watch your business, you’ll get ripped off.”

Here’s a little example: A former accountant of Sting stole 9 million dollars from him, yet while this theft was occurring, Sting had no idea this was even going on. Imagine that Sting himself had no awareness this was happening! However, there is a semi-happy ending to the story though, as the accountant was eventually found out by someone else which lead to a prosecution – but could you imagine not knowing you had 9 million dollars missing!?

I myself remember not wanting to really deal with contracts and the like when I first unleashed my shocking new style of performance in Chicago when I was a teenager. How boring? Numbers…Clauses…Percentages…YUK!!!

What interested me was not the business side of things, but the obsessive all consuming desire to get my message out there and change the world. (LAM=Laughing At Myself!) Playing more forcefully and aggressively that anyone prior, chaining ourselves together in public, scaring some suburban housewives, getting authentic blessed Catholic holy water from a religious supply store. Now that’s worth time and energy! (Forgive me father for I have sinned. I was just a post-teenage hermaphrodite, as one journalist so eloquently put it, HA HA!)

But throughout over three decades in the music business, I have learned about it, not because I ever wanted to, but because I had to. I have been ripped off too many times to mention here and I don’t mean to state that in any kind of a self pitying way. It has just been part of the journey, a learning experience and I deal with it in the best way I can.

Here are just a few examples: All kinds of bootleggers have tried to sell the movie I was in, Urgh! A Music War for up to $80.00 a DVD copy, illegally. All the while they keep claiming that they are really just so about punk, when in reality, they are really just so about their profit – not about punk at all. A nice little cozy cottage industry of running off cheap DVD’s which cost the bootleggers about a buck, maybe – then marking it up to as high as $80.00 a DVD, plus don’t forget, the buyer pays for shipping and handling on top of it?!?!? They have absolutely no right to make a dime from something they had nothing to do with creating on an artistic or business level.

On top of all of that, my song, She’s Taking Her Love Away from my album Conversation mysteriously appeared in a made for TV movie in 1995 starring Tori Spelling called Coed Call Girl. I had no knowledge that this actually occurred until a few years ago. I even had two separate musical groups in England try to call themselves SKAFISH. So yes, I’ve had to learn to take care of business. In this instance: It’s mine (Jimmy’s) and you (people trying to rip me off) can’t have it!

As these two different UK groups tried to hijack my name, the question should be posed, what is the value of a name? It’s like asking, how much equity is in your home? If you own a 150 million dollar mansion, there’s a lot of equity in that home. That’s comparable to the value of a name like Elvis. If you own a 75 thousand dollar house, there’s some equity in that property and that’s more analogous to the value of a lesser-known artist’s name. However, never forget that the name is always worth something.

When Tina Turner divorced Ike Turner, the one thing she wanted was to keep her name – to be able to still be known as Tina Turner as a performer and she ended up achieving this. The Jackson 5 had legal issues with their record company and had to modify their name to simply be The Jacksons. Grand Funk Railroad got into some dispute with their manager and through a lawsuit, had to drop Railroad and simply became Grand Funk. In recent years, The Doors fought over being able to perform as The Doors featuring a new singer and after legal action, were no longer able to do so.

However, John Lydon was not allowed to use his stage name Johnny Rotten after the Sex Pistols broke up back in the day, because their manger or his enterprises owned the name Johnny Rotten. It’s scary to think that a name an artist may have used, created, or one that he or she may have even been born with can suddenly not be theirs to use professionally anymore. Here we see: It’s mine (whoever legally owns the name) and you (whoever doesn’t have legal ownership of the name) can’t have it!

With the advent of the Internet, which of course is here to stay, rights and ownership have become a free for all. (You may not be able to fathom this, but I actually heard a major record executive recently say that the Internet was a passing fad.) Yes, that’s right – just like the hula-hoop or The Macarena. (LOL) However, the Internet is ever changing. Now, if an artist wishes to cover someone else’s song to sell on the Internet, they must pay up front for the rights to do so – meaning the ability to sell the cover recordings over the Internet via downloads, MP3’s and iTunes, etc.

Recently on the Internet, someone illegally posted a stream of consciousness video cover of my song Where Is James Bond? (When You Really Need Him.) I’ve had many situations where people just cover my songs illegally. Within recent months, a death metal group released a cover of Disgracing The Family Name – illegally, as the group put it out on an internationally released CD without first seeking a license to do so.

A colleague of mine has a musical group who was considering signing a record deal and he asked for my advice. He was surprised that part of the proposed record contract stated that his group could not do any cover songs. He was almost in shock when I told him that you have to pay up to 9.1 cents per song per copy in mechanical royalties. Plus, there are now digital mechanical royalties for selling songs on the Internet. He had no idea! It was obvious that the record label did not want to mess with this costly and complex payment structure to be able to do a cover — legally.

Long before the explosion of the Internet, I remember when sampling first became in vogue in the 1980’s and everyone was stealing everyone’s music (especially the catalogue of James Brown). It seemed to me that a real turning point in establishing a legal precedence regarding sampling occurred around the time when Vanilla Ice sampled David Bowie and Queen’s song Under Pressure for his smash hit Ice Ice Baby. He didn’t pay them for it at all but after he was sued, he had to issue writing and publishing credit to Bowie and Queen and pay them for lifting their song. Since that time period, everyone has had to pay for samples (which is probably why you hear far less samples in rap anymore, because it costs too much to do it and it is far less easy to get away with stealing other’s tracks all the time). Look out sampling technology — Here we see: It’s mine (the person who owns the recording) and you (the sampler) can’t have it!

I would like to share with you a story of a rip off that did have a happy ending for someone who I had a connection with and just adored – someone who included me in the club from the day we met back in the mid 1970’s – a kindred spirit who recognized that he and I were the same before I did — one of the greatest blues artists of all time, the incomparable Willie Dixon! Besides crossing paths with Willie many times, he invited me to his home and frequently referred to me as “The best musician I know.” I adored Willie and often still think of him now that he’s transitioned into spirit.

I’ve known so many pretentious and ego inflated performers. Yet sitting in many rooms with Willie gave me the ability to experience a legend, yet one who was so unaffected, totally real, completely down to earth and natural that is was inspirational for me to be in his presence! Of all people, he deserves to get credit and by all means be paid for his groundbreaking contributions to music.

Back in the day, Willie’s manager sued Led Zeppelin over a claim that the song Whole Lotta Love was ripped off from Willie. I remember Willie’s manager telling me how terrified he was testifying in federal court. Anyway, Willie did win this lawsuit! Part of the terms, though, were that Led Zeppelin wanted this to be kept out of the press. Imagine how it would make them look to be seen as Willie Dixon wanna be rip offs? So just look on any new Led Zeppelin release for the writing credits listed for Whole Lotta Love and you’ll see Willie Dixon’s name listed. What a great victory for someone who was so underrated and underpaid during his physical life!

As I’ve always been willing to share any knowledge I have with anyone if it might help them, it gives me great satisfaction to hope that my experiences may help make someone else’s journey be easier and more fruitful!  Here are two great books to read if you want to learn more about the music business: Donald Passman’s All You Need To Know About the Music Business: 6th Edition and Richard Stim’s Music Law: How to Run Your Band’s Business.

To all of the musicians reading this: DO NOT EVER SELL YOUR RIGHTS AWAY TO A CORPORATION WITH THE HOPE OF “MAKING IT!” Remember that if you sell your rights in this way, you will have no control over what happens to your work, probably forever. Also, have a qualified entertainment attorney go through every single point of every contract you’re considering signing. Yes, it is boring and no, it won’t make you feel like a rock star but be smart and just do it. I do it all the time — it’s like taking out the garbage or fixing lunch; it simply has to be done.

To start with, don’t sell your master recordings to a corporation in perpetuity. If you do, there is a good chance you’ll get screwed. The major label horror stories are too lengthy to mention here, but two important points are worth noting: 1) – If the label doesn’t care to release your record for ANY reason whatsoever, they don’t have to and they won’t. (I’ve had this happen to me with my first and second LPs). If the record company doesn’t feel there’s enough money to be made, or it doesn’t suit their greedy little fancy, your record will just sit there. It’s like signing over the house you so painstakingly built to someone else and they decide they don’t want to live in it or sell it back to you, but they refuse to do anything with it, either. So it just sits there in a Catholic state of limbo, like someone floating aimlessly through the ether for eternity.

2) – If the label owns it, they can and will do anything they want with it. Here is a perfect example: I was speaking with Dave Frey, (the manager of Cheap Trick and The Ramones) a few months ago, and he told me how Cheap Trick’s former label released a compilation record called Mullet Rock and put Cheap Trick right on the cover. OMG!!!! A mullet is un-cooler than leisure suits, bellbottoms, 1980’s Bon Jovi hot chick poof hair, or even heavy metal circa 1980’s macho dude drag queens. You know the type: “I’m wearing lipstick and I may look like a fag, but I’m into booze, coke, pussy and I’ll kick your ass!” LOL, but not with bad intent toward anyone else!

First, Cheap Trick is one of the greatest rock bands of all time, bar none. Could you imagine how they must have felt being featured on a CD cover showcasing one of the most embarrassing aesthetics of modern times? On top of that, fans would show up at Cheap Trick concerts and yell at Dave Frey: “Why did you let them be on this f*****up CD cover? What kind of a manager are you?!” Of course, Dave had nothing to do with it. Never forget, ownership is everything. Who owns the work? The record label does! The record company didn’t call up Frey and say, “Hey Davie, babe, how’d you like a your boys to be on this very cool compilation CD cover called Mullet Rock?” The label didn’t have to ask Cheap Trick if they wanted to be in on this idiotic cover. They just did it!

One little addendum and an important one! If you feel you have to sell your master recordings to a corporation, make sure to at least have a point in the contract where the rights revert back to you, the artist! The group Chicago had a clause in their early contract stating that the rights to their recordings would revert back to them after 25 years. At the time, the label thought that it was no big deal, as if who would care about some band named Chicago 25 years later. Guess what? They’re catalogue is a huge moneymaker now and I say, good for the group Chicago – they deserve it!

It you write songs, I strongly recommend for you to not sell your publishing. Remember, songwriters and publishers spilt the money 50% – 50%. Surprisingly, half of your income being given away is probably not the worst part of it though! It is usually the publisher who OWNS the copyright, which means that the publisher can do anything they want with the song: License it for toilet cleaning commercials, or use it to sell hemorrhoid products if they want to.

Debut LPI gave up part of my publishing back in the 1970’s for two reasons: 1) – I went over the tiny budget I had to make my first record and if I wanted to get the record done and out there, I had to give up half of the publishing on my first LP and 2) – I didn’t know any better at the time, as I had no concept of the amount of potential money and control of my work I was relinquishing. But thank God, I was able to buy it all back. I used to have nightmares of my songs showing up on some goofy “Weirdest punk and new wave songs of all time” CD. Now, at least that won’t happen to me, unless done illegally! Also, if the CDs or downloads of a song don’t sell much, the only other possible money to be made is from the publishing, which is why an artist should not sell the publishing away. I remember hearing how The Black Crowes sold their publishing before they broke big for an infinitesimal five, yes FIVE thousand dollars.

When Michael Jackson bought The Beatles publishing catalogue, he licensed the Beatles message driven classic Revolution for a sneakers commercial. Paul McCartney was understandably not hot so happy about this, but there was nothing he could do about it. Why! Because: It’s mine (the publisher who owns the copyright) and you (the person who actually created the song, just a minor little insignificant factoid) can’t have it!

Regarding your professional name, make sure you have an agreement with any other band members as to who owns it. Whether it is jointly owned or solely by you, trademark the name! I know it sounds oh so un hip, you know, filling out government forms and talking to attorneys, but would you rather not be able to use your name?!?!? Even though my actual birth name is Skafish, I trademarked my name, which may sound strange as it is on my driver’s license, but it allowed me to swat those little flies dead who tried to call their groups SKAFISH.

Go after people who are ripping you off. (What would you do if someone was breaking into your home?) Legally, it can be considered that you have relinquished your rights and your trademarks by not enforcing those rights legally. It’s like when you don’t use your muscles, they disintegrate and turn to worthless mushy flab. Some people will call you a troll, an ogre, a bastard and a monster…I’ve been called all of those things on a regular basis, but why should you care? Never forget, it’s mine (the artist’s) and you (the worthless bootleggers and thieves) can’t have it!

For me, the funniest incident was where a bunch of people ganged up on me on some message board and kept referring to me as this bitter, sad, pathetic miserable soul who doesn’t want his work to be out there. Ah – Skafish is so very wounded…And while doing this, they claimed that they like me so so much as an artist — all to make themselves look rational and reasonable when they’re nothing more than parasites.

You might ask the question, “Why would they say all of these things?” First, none of these people ever worked with me, don’t know me, have never been friends of mine, and have not done anything whatsoever on any artistic or business level with me.

So the answer is obvious: Since they were selling my work illegally and making money from it, I actually stopped them from ripping me off. Oh, I forgot that they are so very punk – I mean what could be more punk than profiting off of someone else who has never made any money from his own work?

It’s hilarious. These are people who have never spent one minute of their life with me one on one and they’re engaging in a pseudo psychological discourse regarding my motivations and behavior. It’s simple! I don’t wanna be ripped off — that’s all. Would you? Would you like someone stealing the money out of your wallet and yet as an artist, my wallet may or may not have any cash in it anyway, (LOL).

Some people have stated that because some of my work is not available to the world, that perhaps, I’m just oh so bitter, isolated and alone. (Can we have some sad new wave style violins about now?) More inaccurate than that though, is that some even went so far as to suggest that I actually have had something to do with preventing my own work from being released. Hello? Knocking on cretin’s door…Is anyone remotely in residence upstairs? It would be beyond preposterous to think that I of all people wouldn’t want my work out there – art that I have been threatened and physically attacked over, where I could have potentially lost my life multiple times?

Remember this! If something by me is currently unavailable or has never been available, it is because I don’t have any control over it! I deeply want my entire catalogue out there, for the whole world to view in any way they wish. If people don’t like what I do, so be it, as it reminds me just how provincial and narrow-minded people can be, especially those who claim to be open minded and oh so cutting edge. It’s like the hip version of an up tight religious right housewife who is non-orgasmic, LOL!

Regarding the bitter thing, I am not that sort of a person whatsoever! I find bitterness to be quite boring, tedious and draining. Even though it has been a tremendously difficult journey for me, bitterness is so unappealing to me and has never been an option I’ve embraced. Elation, joy and ecstasy (no, not the drug) through helping others are my options.

(Oh well, almost everything that’s ever been said about me isn’t true anyway!) That’s what this blog is for, to finally, once and for all, set this ever so contorted record straight! I wake up everyday with great gratitude and enthusiasm and work toward serving others!

Regarding my work, I have ALWAYS wanted it out there, and I have been doing everything in my power that I possibly can to simply get it out there; ever since I made my first little record in a Gary Indiana recording studio back in 1970. I’ve never given up, gone away, or taken a break! This is again, part of the Chicago revisionist history that is blindly accepted as fact. It has been my daily mission to promote my work and my message, everyday, even on Sundays, when I’m being punished for my weekly sins, LOL.

That’s why I started 829 Records, to get this most radical portion of my catalogue to everyone. With its first project, What’s This? 1976-1979 to be released in just a little over a week, it can be heard for what it really was and is! With all of the tapes formerly lost and the enormous monetary expense it has been for me to put it all together, from my vantage point, it is nothing short of a miracle that it is finally seeing the light of day!

Here, over thirty years later, it’s finally mine (What’s This? 1976-1979), and you (the world that wants something transformational, real and non compromised) can have it!

Jim Skafish

© 2008 Skafish

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